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School Safety Topics

Alcohol/Underage Drinking

Consumption of alcohol by anyone under the age of 21, also known as underage drinking, is not only against the law, it is dangerous. Underage drinking is an enduring problem, and medical research shows that the developing adolescent brain may be particularly susceptible to long-term negative consequences of alcohol use.

- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

teen drinking in an ally

Understanding the Issue

Alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug among young people in the United States, more than tobacco and illicit drugs. That makes it a major public health problem and an important topic in the realm of school safety. In 2007, the Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking emphasizes the important impact that schools and universities have on their students and recommends actions they can take.

Did you know? Underage drinking, including binge drinking, is associated with reduced academic performance. Students who reported binge drinking were three times more likely than non-binge drinkers to report earning mostly Ds and Fs on their report cards.

Related Links

SAMHSA's "Talk. They Hear You." app is an interactive game that helps you learn the do’s and don’ts of talking to kids about underage drinking

SAMHSA's Too Smart To Start helps prevent underage alcohol use by offering strategies and materials for youth, teens, families, educators, community leaders, professionals, and volunteers

  • How big of a problem is underage drinking?
    Underage drinking is widespread.

    According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 35.1 percent of 15-year-olds report that they have had at least 1 drink in their lives. About 8.7 million people ages 12–20 (22.7 percent of this age group) reported drinking alcohol in the past month (23 percent of males and 22.5 percent of females). And young people drink a lot.

    According to the 2013 NSDUH, approximately 5.4 million people (about 14.2 percent) ages 12–20 engaged in binge drinking (15.8 percent of males and 12.4 percent of females).

    According to the 2013 NSDUH, approximately 1.4 million people (about 3.7 percent) ages 12–20 engaged in heavy drinking (4.6 percent of males and 2.7 percent of females).

    Source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
  • What are the risks of underage drinking?
    • Death – 5,000 people under age 21 die each year from alcohol-related car crashes, homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning, and other injuries such as falls, burns, and drowning.
    • Serious injuries – More than 190,000 people under age 21 visited an emergency room for alcohol-related injuries in 2008 alone.
    • Impaired judgment – Drinking can cause kids to make poor decisions, which can then result in risky behavior like drinking and driving, sexual activity, or violence.
    • Increased risk for physical and sexual assault – Youth who drink are more likely to carry out or be the victim of a physical or sexual assault.
    • Brain development problems – Research shows that brain development continues well into a person’s twenties. Alcohol can affect this development, and contribute to a range of problems.

    Source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol

  • How can you recognize the signs of underage drinking?
    Anyone who interacts with young people should pay close attention to the warning signs that may indicate underage drinking. Some of these warning signs include:
    • Academic and/or behavioral problems in school
    • Changing groups of friends
    • Less interest in activities and/or appearance
    • Finding alcohol among a young person’s things or smelling alcohol on their breath
    • Slurred speech
    • Coordination problems
    • Memory and/or concentration problems

    Source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

  • How can parents talk with their kids about alcohol?
    From Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):
    No matter what issues your child is facing, one of the best things you can do to prevent them from turning to alcohol is to talk with them.
    • Short, frequent discussions can have a real impact on your child’s decisions about alcohol. Talking to your child at an early age about drinking is the first step toward keeping them alcohol-free. But as they enter junior high and high school, the pressure to try alcohol increases. It’s important to continue the conversation throughout adolescence.
    • Talking often builds an open, trusting relationship with your child. Young people are more likely to avoid drinking when they have a strong, trusting relationship with their parents. Get into the habit of chatting with your child every day. It will make it easier to have serious conversations about things like alcohol, and will make your child more comfortable coming to you for advice.
    • Lots of little talks are more effective than one “big talk.” Sitting down for the “big talk” about alcohol can be intimidating for both you and your child. Try using everyday opportunities to talk—in the car, during dinner, or while you and your child are watching TV. Having lots of little talks takes the pressure off trying to get all of the information out in one lengthy discussion, and your child will be less likely to tune you out.
    • When you do talk about alcohol, make your views and rules clear. Take the time to discuss your beliefs and opinions about alcohol with your child. Be honest and express a clear, consistent message that underage drinking is unacceptable. When they feel that you are being real and honest with them, they will be more likely to respect your rules about underage drinking.
    • As children get older, the conversation changes.What you say to a 9-year-old about alcohol is different from what you say to a 15-year-old. Young people also can’t learn all they need to know from a single discussion. Make sure that the information you offer your child fits their age. As they get older, you can give them more information and reinforce your rules.
    • Remember that the conversation goes both ways.Although talking to your child about your thoughts about alcohol is essential, it is also important to hear their point of view. Give your child the opportunity to ask you questions, and listen to what they have to say. Young people who have parents who listen to their feelings and concerns are more likely to say “no” to alcohol.
    • What you do is just as important as what you say. In addition to talking often with your child about alcohol, it’s important to set a good example. If you choose to drink, you can positively influence your child by drinking in moderation and NEVER driving when you have been drinking. Be aware of where you keep your alcohol, and always remind your child that the alcohol in your house is off-limits.
  • Why is adolescence a critical time for preventing addiction?
    From Phoenix House drug and alcohol treatment centers:

    Judgment and decision-making skills are still developing in teens, so their ability to assess risks accurately and make sound decisions about using drugs may be limited. Drug and alcohol abuse can disrupt brain function in areas critical to motivation, memory, learning, judgment, and behavior control. So, it is not surprising that teens who abuse alcohol and other drugs often have family and school problems, poor academic performance, health-related problems (including mental health), and involvement with the juvenile justice system